Saturday, January 28, 2012

Army Surgeons of Fort Snelling and the Whiskey Trade

                                          Fort Snelling in 1844 by John Casper Wild

In the summer of 1839, forty-seven soldiers had been confined to the guard-house of Minnesota's Fort Snelling for drunkenness in a single night. During the winter, some of them had perished while attempting to climb back up to the fort while intoxicated. They froze to death and their bodies were eaten by wolves. Others became crippled from severe frostbite.

At this time the local army surgeon was one Dr. John Emerson, who was, naturally, quite concerned about the effects of this over-consumption of spirits. Dr. Emerson was a giant of a man and his character was inclined to be noble. On the occasion of the garrison quarter-master distributing some new stoves to the officers, Emerson asked for one for his negro servant. When the quarter-master told him there were not enough, the doctor insinuated this was a lie. Being struck in the face by the quarter-master, Dr. Emerson then went to get his pistols, pointing them at his assailant. The quarter-master took off on a run with Emerson giving chase. The physician was arrested by the garrison's chief officer, Major Joseph Plympton, but a number of the fort personnel were agitating for a duel so that honor could be satisfied. Others didn't think this a good idea, since John Emerson was the only doctor for about 300 miles, the next one being at Prairie du Chien down river. Peace was eventually restored and it should be mentioned that the slave of Emerson was none other than Dred Scott, later to be a litigant in a renowned case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

At any rate, it was Dr. Emerson who had written a letter to the Surgeon General of the United States, dated April 23, 1839, pleading for something to be done in order to get rid of the whiskey sellers.  In due course, the area of the army reserve was widened to include the settlement where resided the purveyors of drink.  Regardless of who was innocent and who was guilty of peddling the rot-gut, the cabins of the settlers were torn down in the following spring.

Despite the severe and even extreme measures implemented in May of 1840, the homeless settlers moved farther down from the garrison to what is now the city of St. Paul and the unlicensed traffic in strong drink continued. The subsequent drunkenness and absence from the roll call was one of the difficulties in which the new Catholic priest, a French immigrant named Lucien Galtier, attempted to mediate while he went about the business of establishing a congregation and making plans to build a church--the first of the area. However, just three months after disembarking at St. Peter's1, the priest, who was twenty-eight, fell extremely ill and had to be confined to the Fort Snelling hospital for the next two months for what he designated “bilious fever and ague”, which may have been typhoid fever.

By this time, the fall of 1840,  a Dr. George Turner had replaced Emerson and it appears Mrs. Turner was not averse to nursing some of her husband's patients.  Father Galtier wrote, “My grateful heart will never forget the relief I experienced at their hands.”   A traveler along the Mississippi, Joseph Le Conte, tells us a bit more about Doctor and Mrs. Turner:

Our camping-trip therefore ended here. We sold out our tent and bedding, blankets and buffalo-robes, and leaving our trunks at St. Peter's under suitable charge, hired a boat to take us over the river. Having climbed the cliff, or escarpment, on which Fort Snelling is built, we delivered our letters from Dr. Holden to Dr. Turner, the surgeon of the fort. He received us with great cordiality, and invited us to stay at the fort until the steamer from below should arrive. We were given comfortable rooms in the parsonage,2 and invited to take our meals with Dr. Turner's family...We found Mrs. Turner a charming woman and enjoyed her society the more as we had seen nothing but Indians and half-breeds since leaving Mackinac. We greatly enjoyed the dinner, too, for that very day the game-laws imposed by the officers themselves ended, and they had brought in about a hundred prairie chickens. Dr. Turner, a famous sportsman, was especially successful, his pack being about thirty.”

1The name for the area surrounding Fort Snelling , including the present Mendota. The Minnesota River was then called the St. Pierre. Fort Snelling is located at the convergence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota.

2Rev. Ezekiel Gear was the Fort Snelling chaplain from 1839-1858.